Corporate Social…Inauthenticity

The opening remarks at the recent Global Conference for Social Change, joint venture of the Foundation for Social Change and the United Nations Office for Partnerships, went something like this:

“Let’s take a look at this phrase corporate social responsibility. Let’s take away social. Now let’s take away corporate. What we’re left with responsibility, which is defined as being accountable for something and the moral obligation to behave correctly. That sounds really heavy and we don’t want that. Why don’t we call it an opportunity.  And what’s an opportunity?  To do something. Really, in essence, we’re talking about corporate social opportunity.”

As an advocate for socially driven business, it’s my responsibility to say, “enough.”

We are on the fringes of some amazing territory, where businesses can be used to meet significant social needs and can be successful doing so. But the territory is still undrawn and I fear that some of us in the party for socially driven businesses are digging sand traps, perhaps unwittingly.

Just as the momentum is gaining–consumers and communities are more expectant of companies to be proactive ethicists, new demographics are being served, and the perceived limits of business are bursting open with innovation and collaboration–there are some who are erecting smoke and mirror sideshows. And if there’s one word that could derail this movement, it’s inauthenticity.

Poorly executed employee volunteer programs and cause marketing campaigns are excusable for first-timers. These companies’ determination to make a social impact will carry them through novice flubs, but what about BSR–that’s Business for Social Responsibility–which invited Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant to keynote the recent conference and shepherded him around like the Maharaja? Nearly 20 years old, BSR is too experienced to make that type of mistake. Which means it’s not a mistake, it’s a hairy tangle of posturing, false marketing and deception.

What are BSR and the Foundation for Social Change, professed support systems for social business, doing? Where is their expression and action for real social impact? I won’t even hold them accountable for large-scale impact (yet), but I will demand honesty of intention in the name of world-changing.

While my bleeding heart is certainly beating strongly at the moment, I’m not letting it trump pragmatism. The stakes for social impact and economic growth are too high to let falsehoods of do-gooding perpetuate. I absolutely believe that through collaborating among sectors, meeting new market needs and working for our grandchildren’s world, we’ll see ample businesses that succeed by doing good and more individuals who benefit from business.

If you’re not on board, that’s okay, but please don’t stand in the way promoting false sustainability. There’s too much at stake–and too much opportunity–to turn this into a distorted fun house.

Image credit: Alicia Hayes

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  1. Chris Jarvis December 1, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    Hi Olivia,

    I might need some background on Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant. I took a quick look online for some controversy, but didn’t find much.


  2. Olivia Khalili December 1, 2010 at 5:32 pm #

    Chris, you raise a good point. Thanks for bringing it up. My gripe lies with Monsanto’s history of (and current) practices, not with Hugh Grant in particular. But as the CEO, I do identify Grant as the figure head of the company’s practices.

    A bit about why I view Monsanto as wildly unethical:

    The company is the leading developer of genetically engineered seed and bovine growth hormone and an aggressive political lobbyist and litigator. The company has been involved in a slew of class action lawsuits for health complications arising from its products.

    Some of the violations Monsanto has been charged with include child labor, farmer suicides, “seed piracy,” bribing officials in developing economies to forgo environmental impact assessments of its genetically modified products (soybeans, cotton).

    I welcome a discussion from any readers. I think it’s an important, but gray, area.

    Thanks, Chris.

  3. Cathie Guthrie December 7, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    Your heart palpitations are infectious! I hadn’t seen the introductory remarks from the social change conference, but I have to say, replacing ‘responsibility’ with ‘opportunity’ rings “exploitation” loud and clear. Stakeholders expecting an authentic experience from the “opportunists” look out!
    I have been quite concerned about the “social” disappearing from CSR and I must admit to a personal hang-up I have about the “C”. I find the “C” gets in the way of consumer access; it’s used over and over again by the SMEs as an excuse for doing nothing; and it lets consumers believe that SMEs have no role being socially responsible, allowing them to set their expectations that much lower as a result.
    But to hear about the “R” disappearing — well, that’s blasphemous in my books! It`s like the duty bearers in the world of children`s rights or human rights viewing their obligations as opportunities; which in fact is what some governments have done, unable to deliver on their obligations they choose to use the international instruments as marketing tools for acceptance by more credible governments.
    I wrote two posts last week on the subject of the “C” and the “S” before having read this post today as a result of someone tweeting about it. I’m always reminded of a greater order when I see this kind of alignment in perspective without ever having had the chance to discuss perspectives. Please drop in and leave me your feedback. I also have a soapbox —
    Thanks for the storm! I loved it.

  4. Olivia Khalili December 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm #


    That’s an excellent point about how “Corporate” can deter (or deflect responsibility from) SMEs becoming sustainably engaged. Personally, I love working with SMEs to craft and improve social missions; their size allows for agility and testing and they often are able to better transfer the passion of their founders and employees to consumers, and vice versa. I’ll head over to now. Thanks for the great comment (it made me laugh out loud!).